Leonie Haimson exits public school parenting but not advocacy

Leonie Haimson at a rally last month outside of the Tweed Courthouse.

Leonie Haimson’s career as a New York City education activist started when her older child was assigned to a first-grade class with 28 other students. That was in 1996, and since then, Haimson has advocated for public school parents — through her organization, Class Size Matters; the blog and online mailing lists she runs; and the national parent group she helped launch.

But her personal stake changed last summer, when Haimson ceased to be a public school parent. Her younger child started at a private high school in September, following a trajectory from public to private school that her older child, now an adult, also took.

Many of Haimson’s close friends and colleagues in the parent advocacy world have known for months about the change in her status. But she did not make it known publicly until today, after learning that GothamSchools planned to disclose the information in a story. “I myself don’t think it is either particularly interesting or relevant,” she wrote in a post on the blog she started in 2007, NYC Public School Parents, before going on to explain the choice.

“It is a parent’s responsibility to find a school that they believe best fits their children’s needs,” Haimson wrote in a statement she sent to GothamSchools before publishing her own post.

The disclosure caught some other advocates off guard.

“I’m surprised,” said Sheila Kaplan, a student data privacy advocate who has worked with Haimson in recent months. “She’s never said anything about her kids being in private schools.”

After shaping much of her identity around her role as a public school parent, decamping from the city’s public schools puts Haimson in a delicate situation. It also opens her up to questions from her many opponents in the polarized education policy debate.

For one thing, she has often pointed to where other education advocates and officials sent their own children to school as valid grounds for debate about their education policy positions. And she has been especially vocal about targeting others’ decisions to send their children to private schools.

“Why Do Politicians Blow Up When Asked Where They Send Their Own Kids to School?” she asked in the headline of one Huffington Post column. The column cited Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obama, and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey as examples of elected officials whose personal school decisions contradicted their public positions about education.

But Haimson and supporters said they have only criticized policy makers who push one agenda in public schools but support a different one by sending their children to private schools that do not reflect the public agenda. Unlike those policy makers, Haimson said she wants all students — in both kinds of schools — to have small classes, an enriched arts curriculum, and freedom from standardized tests.

”I am fighting for the right of every public school parent to have what every private school parent has access to,” she said. ”The hypocrisy is Joel Klein and Bill Gates, who say class sizes don’t matter and yet send their kids to schools with small class sizes.”

It’s a position that resonates with Diane Ravitch, the education historian and activist who sent her children to city private schools.

“I don’t think it means anything for her advocacy that she enrolls her son in a private school because she wants the same things for public school kids that she wants for her son: small classes, experienced teachers, stability, a rich curriculum, freedom from standardized testing, and adequate resources,” Ravitch said about Haimson.

The school that Haimson’s child attends boasts that it has one adult on staff for every seven students and 15 students per class. In city high schools, classes have 27 students, on average.

The disclosure also opens her up to criticism by the school choice proponents with whom she is a regular foe. Haimson has criticized charter schools and private school vouchers for depriving public schools of resources, particularly in the case of charter schools, which often share space with city public schools. She has also criticized city charter schools for failing to educate their fair share of high-need students.

But supporters of the programs often base their case for the policies around the argument that choice available to parents like Haimson, who can afford to send their children to private schools when they aren’t satisfied with public options, should be expanded to include all parents.

“What is disturbing to me is she chose the best option for her [child], but she does not support my right to make the same choice,” said Joe Herrera, a parent organizer for Families for Excellent Schools whose three children attend Coney Island Preparatory Charter School.

Haimson’s choice — and the apparent difficulty she took in making it and in talking about it publicly — reflect the delicate interplay between the personal and the political in the education debate. For every advocate and policymaker with children, there are the positions one takes on a system level — and then there are the personal choices made at home. And the two do not always match.

Friends said Haimson struggled with the decision about where her son should attend high school personally and professionally. “It was not an easy decision for her, because of who she is [and] because she so passionately believes in public education,” said Karen Sprowal, a parent who works closely with Haimson.

But ultimately, Sprowal said, parents must make the decision that is right for their children. She said she is considering private school after her son, who has special needs, struggled in his school.

And Lisa Donlan, president of District 1’s elected parent council, said her daughter’s decision to attend Stuyvesant High School conflicted with her opposition to the school’s test-based admissions process.

“She said, ‘Mom, I really know you don’t believe in Stuy, but this is what I want,’” Donlan said. “I kind of had to be ashamed because I can’t put my politics and ideology in front of her choice.”

Herrera, too, said his own experience helped him understand Haimson’s school choice. “The fact is that my child was in a situation where he was not receiving an education,” he said. “It’s the same thing she’s done. She’s not waiting around for the system to be fixed.”

Even as her personal ties to the city’s public schools have weakened, Haimson has redoubled the ferocity of her advocacy work. In addition to continuing to operate Class Size Matters, which she runs with no salary on a shoestring budget from her Greenwich Village home, Haimson is also a co-founder of Parents Across America, a national parent organization that organized 2011’s Save Our Schools rally in Washington, D.C.

More recently, she has jumped into new causes, including opposition to a new, privately developed data system to manage personal details about students in New York State and beyond.

Last month, with Ravitch, she helped launch the Network for Public Schools, a national organization that will back candidates who support public education.

She is also preparing to launch a political action committee for the 2013 New York City mayoral election, NYC Kids PAC, that will push candidates to declare their stances on education policies.

Haimson’s supporters say she remains an invaluable resource and tireless participant in a parent advocacy movement where turnover is inevitable as children age out of public schools.

“I’ve always been scared with what happens if Leonie decides not be involved anymore,” said Patrick Sullivan, a member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy who runs the NYC Public School Parents blog with Haimson.

Kaplan said her surprise at learning about where Haimson’s child attends school reflected her confidence in Haimson’s advocacy.

“Maybe I feel that she does such a good job on behalf of public school parents that I assumed that she was a public school parent,” she said.